The pre-game analysis was, almost to a man, that these two teams would run, shoot and score equally. But the edge was to North Carolina because of its veteran upper-classman experience – especially in a close, down-to-the-wire game.
Tell that to Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox.
Well, maybe somebody did tell them. Because those two joyous freshmen faced the Tarheels for 40 minutes, never wilting, never losing the joy in their eyes, the smiles on their faces.
Nobody told them they should be tired. Nobody told them you can’t be expected to keep hitting step-away threes for 40 minutes with someone in your face.
You’ve got to believe a veteran coach like Roy Williams kept screaming at his team, “Whatever else you do, deny number 5 the ball. Get up on him. Double him. Let someone else shoot. He’s killing us!”
But apparently, Carolina thought the way to victory was to keep the offensive pressure on Kentucky, shoot often enough and score regularly enough that the pace would break the freshmen down. That kid can’t hit ’em all.
What Monk did was breathtaking. He took 28 shots, made 18. He took 12 threes, made eight. But even if he’d missed his previous 27 shots, he’d have been stepping back and firing from behind the line with the Cats down by two with 19 seconds to go. He has the ice-in-his-veins mentality and sublime confidence of a shooter.
He said it himself. The rim looked huge. It’s hard to appreciate the combination of skill and confidence of a player at that level. In a game like this, shooters’ legs are supposed to get tired, taking away the spring and elevation they need to shoot those long jump shots. Monk played 38 minutes of racehorse, up-and-down basketball. I was tired, just watching. But he seemed as fresh, as confident, as when he nailed his first shot, 14 seconds into the game. (He said, afterwards, that his first shot is always a precursor of how he’s going to do.)
Did Monk force some things? Yes. Take some bad shots? Yes – even some that went in. But that’s what shooters will do. It’s what you want them to do.
His backcourt partner also forced a few shots. But jump-shooting isn’t Fox’s game. His game is mercurial end-to-end fast-break sprints, running the offense, knowing where his shooters are and playing an active, disruptive defense. In addition to being a marvelous basketball player, a combination of brains and instincts, he’s also a better athlete than almost anyone else on the court.
Note his spectacular effort on Carolina’s next-to-last inbounds play. He ran from somewhere around the free throw lane, safety-style, launching and outleaping everyone else for the ball before falling and tumbling out-of-bounds. It was an overlooked effort in a frenzied finish, but it won the game almost as much as his teammate’s jump shot.
Bam was hampered by fouls and spent a lot of time on the bench. This should have opened the gates for Carolina’s vaunted offensive rebounding game. But the Cats were able to keep that manageable. Maybe, when both teams shoot upwards of 50 percent, there just aren’t as many offensive rebounds to get. Whatever, the Cats took away that huge Tarheel advantage and then everyone sat back and watched Monk trade big-time pressure baskets with North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Joel Berry.
Towards the end of the game, when North Carolina battled back to take the lead, I was prepared to write that in a game like this – especially in December – so close, so up and down, North Carolina will likely end up with more points and it will go down in the books as a Kentucky L. But it needn’t been seen as a loss, at all, just a wonderful performance that fell a hair short in a 200-plus-point game.
But then, Kentucky ended up with more points. And a W is always better.
I’d say now, on to Louisville. But by the time you read this column, you’ll already know what I don’t. You’ll already have seen the Louisville game. And honestly, if John Calipari doesn’t find a way to support Bam on the interior – on defense, where Louisville likes to drive the ball, and on the boards, where the Cardinals have some length and some bulk – this game might be the L that the Cats narrowly avoided in Las Vegas.
Or Monk will again be Monk, and Fox Fox, and Bam Bam. The Fabulous Freshmen.
But you already know that. VT